Reformers and racists

I’m no political historian, and I’ve no desire to get here into the whys and wherefores of last week’s general election. Suffice to say, I’m appalled to be under a Conservative government; and feel defrauded by the most disproportionate election result ever. On Thursday I distracted myself from work by posting some themed pictures on BlackCountryPics, and of course, there’s plenty of stories. Here are my favourite pics.

Sir John Campbell, Whig MP for Dudley 1832-1834
Sir John Campbell, Whig MP for Dudley 1832-1834

Our earliest character is John Campbell, 1st Baron Campbell. After the Great Reform Act of 1832 – which saw the first large-scale amendment of voting rights and seat divisions – Campbell moved from his parliamentary seat of Stafford to the newly-created one of Dudley. He didn’t last long, being returned for Edinburgh as Attorney General in 1834. He’s best remembered for his role in parliamentary reform, such as it was; his reforming mindset didn’t stretch much beyond the tinkering 1832 act, and he was responsible for prosecuting John Frost, one of the Chartist leaders at the Newport demonstrations that Michael Sheen eloquently discussed recently. He later sponsored the Obsence Publications Act, describing the pornography trade as “a sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic.”

Charles Pelham Villiers, Liberal MP for Wolverhampton 1835-1898
Charles Pelham Villiers, Liberal MP for Wolverhampton 1835-1898

At the other end of the longevity scale we find the longest-serving ever MP, Charles Pelham Villiers. He was elected as Liberal MP for Wolverhampton in 1835 and remained in the Commons, declining a peerage, until his death in 1898. He was last elected in 1895, aged 93. Villiers was the epitome of liberal Free Trade, a dedicated campaigner for the repeal of the Corn Laws. He was later Poor Law Commissioner, well suiting his Benthamite persuasions (Edwin Chadwick, the greatest of mid-century reformers, was also very much the Benthamite). He later joined Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists and campaigned against Irish Home Rule. He rarely visited Wolverhampton.

Red Cross Street School, Wolverhampton
Red Cross Street School, Wolverhampton

My next image reflects the changes in society as Victorian turned to Edwardian. No longer are we looking at Parliamentary titans; this time it’s a school, used as a polling station in East Wolverhampton in 1908. The suffragette movement was in full flow, but it would still be ten years until women were eligible to vote. That was, with the exception of Lois Dawson who through clerical error was registered as Louis. Lois thought she’d try her luck, and lo and behold, managed a vote at Red Cross Street School. Take that, patriarchy. Full story here, and more on Wolverhampton’s political women here.

Oswald Moseley in Smethwick, 1926
Oswald Mosley in Smethwick, 1926

Big changes were afoot after the great war. The suffragettes won, the Labour party grew and grew. The Liberal party of Campbell and Villiers had combusted in the 1922 election and Labour became the official opposition, but these were unsteady times, and elections followed in 1923. Ramsay MacDonald became PM of the first Labour (minority) government – for about nine months. 1924 saw Bewdley boy Stanley Baldwin win for the Tories, a position that remained throughout the Great Strike of 1926. In that year, Smethwick held a by-election, and the Labour candidate was a Conservative defector, the “cad and wrong’un” Mosley. He’d quit the Conservative government to become an Independent in 1924, and won this by-election for Labour in 1926. This wonderful picture (source) is him on the campaign trail with his wife, Lady Cynthia Curzon. Mosley was extremely self-confident, charismatic and eloquent, not to mention radical. His proto-Keynesian solutions to the unemployment crisis through nationalisation and state-led public works were a generation ahead of their time, but was rejected by the somewhat cowardly Labour government of 1929. It’s worth a read of Michael Foot’s biography of Nye Bevan for this period. A dissatisfied Mosley left Labour in 1931 to form the left-leaning New Party, but he’s most famous for that to which his egotism, charisma and political leaning led – the formation of the British Union of Fascists in 1932.

Sir Winston Churchill speaking at Wolverhampton Football Field, 1949
Sir Winston Churchill speaking at Wolverhampton Football Field, 1949

Obviously, things didn’t go well for Mosley, or for his fellow fascists. Greatest Ever Briton (TM) Winston Churchill ended the war victorious, but also a deep-seated conservative in a country hungry for a fresh start. Atlee’s Labour Party won a thumping majority and went on to make some of the most important structural changes to this country of any government, ever. In an age of austerity (an enforced, war-damaged austerity, not an artificial, economic one like today’s), their notable achievements included the welfare state, a social housing boom, the NHS, nationalised industry and transport, and the beginning of the end of Empire. Churchill, ever opposed to the likes of Atlee and Bevan, was not a fan. He campaigned in Wolverhampton in 1949 before the February 1950 general election – he succeeded in narrowing Labour’s lead to an ultimately unsustainable 5 seat majority (Cameron take note) and re-took the premiership the following year.

Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths campaigning in Smethwick, 1964
Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths campaigning in Smethwick, 1964

Despite having the highest share of votes, the Tories took a 16-seat majority in 1951, boosted to 60 in 1955 and 100 in 1969. Anthony Eden had replaced Churchill, and was then replaced by Harold ‘Supermac’ MacMillan. But in Swinging Britain in 1964, the times they were a-changing and Harold Wilson sold Labour to the nation on the back of growing economic confidence. But other issues were at stake, and none so vicious as those which ignited the infamous contest for Smethwick. The 1960s saw substantial immigration to all the major cities, and Smethwick received its fair share. A fairly safe Labour seat, Peter Griffiths as Conservative candidate managed to successfully exploit the fears and concerns of the white working class with his horrific (unofficial) slogan “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” All apologies for the language. This was backed up by the Council’s new housing allocation policy of only letting to white British families on Marshall Street, visited by Malcolm X himself the following year, days before his assassination; and the formation of the only British branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The story is almost unbelievable, and tragic for that. Griffiths was thankfully unseated in 1966, and the seat returned to Labour. There’s a C4 documentary available all about this.

Enoch Powell campaigning in Wolverhampton, 1970
Enoch Powell campaigning in Wolverhampton, 1970

Sadly, that wasn’t the end of the issue in the West Midlands. Wilson won a snap election in 1966, increasing his majority. but in 1968 one Enoch Powell, Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, set the tone for all discussion of the subject until the present. Powell, another great orator, gave a speech in Birmingham applying Virgil to immigration:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come.

The “Rivers of Blood” speech led to Powell’s sacking the next day and caused outcry from all corners. In retrospect, Powell claimed it was not race that was the problem but immigration; nevertheless it was widely understood to be an incitement to racial hatred – an issue picked up with wonderful irony by the photographer here. Powell is seen campaigning in the massively multi-cultural Wolverhampton in 1970, and the Cons went on – against the poll predictions, familiarly – to defeat Wilson and re-enter government. Many consider that Powell’s outspoken views contributed significantly to the Tories gain.

Margaret Thatcher visits Willenhall in 1976
Margaret Thatcher visits Willenhall in 1976
Dennis Turner on the pickets at Bilston Steelworks
Dennis Turner on the pickets at Bilston Steelworks

5 days before the 1974 election, Powell ditched the Conservatives and voted Labour in protest of Ted Heath’s entry of the UK into the EEC. He ended up Ulster Unionist MP for South Down. But this was the least of Heath’s worries in 1974, as Britain entered one of its most turbulent political decades. Northern Ireland turned its back on the main political parties and voted local as the Troubles heated up. Heath attempted a Con-Lib coalition but was blocked by Jeremy Thorpe. Wilson took over at the head of a minority Labour government, which was then boosted to a slim majority with a second election in October 1974. The 70s were torrid for the Labour government though: when Callaghan replaced Wilson he had to make pacts with the Liberals, UUP, SNP and Plaid to stay in place. The 1978/9 winter of discontent weighed heavy on voters minds and the Tories romped home. Thatcher – seen here in Willenhall in 1976 – swept to power. The strike of ’78 and ’79 were Callaghan’s downfall – a nation in the throes of deindustrialisation struggled against a changing economic mindset, and the Black Country was no stranger to that, of course. But Thatcher, with her subsequent 13 year rule, took that baton and ran with it, completely dismantling British manufacturing and re-configuring the economy towards the City of London and financial services. Those parts of the country that had relied on industry suffered immensely – its no surprise that the strikes of the 70s pale in the popular memory by comparison with the miners’ strikes of the mid 80s. Locally, these were epitomised by the Bilston Steelworks strikes with local hero and MP for Bilston, Dennis Turner front and centre.

Betty Boothroyd, MP for West Bromwich East, visiting Keltruck in West Bromwich, 1992.
Betty Boothroyd, MP for West Bromwich East, visiting Keltruck in West Bromwich, 1992.

For many, the bleak photo and Turner’s (later Lord Bilston) grim face are the abiding memory of the 1980s. As the 1990s dawned, so too did new hope for Labour – only for that to be cruelly dashed by an unexpected, slim Tory majority for John Major. This was Neil Kinnock’s final fling and -via John Smith – how we ended up with Tony Blair. But worthy of an interim mention is MP for West Bromwich East between 1973 and 2000, Baroness Boothroyd, the ever-popular speaker of the house from 1992 to 2000.

Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell in Dudley, 1994
Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell in Dudley, 1994

As I write, the Labour Party is currently wrangling with itself to work out whether it wants to follow in the footsteps of its most successful leader ever. Blair’s Labour is not Atlee’s or Wilson’s Labour – in Peter Mandelson’s words they were “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” Not for New Labour the socialism of the past. Here is Alistair Campbell, the ultimate spin doctor, scowling out an aide at a meeting in Dudley. Blair’s landslide in 1997 was unprecedented for the party, with a hardly believable majority of 253.

Those days seem long gone. We haven’t had a large majority since Blair in 2005 (66 seats) with some of the Black Country seats being very much marginal. These days the Liberals aren’t even the third party round here, with UKIP pulling much more weight. As I said, I’m no political historian, and most of these are recycled facts. If there’s any sort of over-arching narrative, it’s that the Black Country is a more complex place, politically speaking than, say, the former minefields in the north-east, or the true blue home counties. It’s had its shares of heroes and villains, some righteous, some downright vile. Perhaps its complexity is a legacy of its ‘little master’ status during the industrial revolution – rather than the big labour movements found in mining and factory towns, the workshop economy of the West Midlands tended towards mixed loyalties, and so it remains.

I’m no politician either, but on a personal note, the one thing I found when trawling through election results is the insane discrepancies between how many votes parties receive and how many seats they win. There are several instances of those with the highest vote share failing to win the most seats. In this day and age that seems bizarre. Hence a plug – please do, if you can, sign the Electoral Reform Society’s petition for a fairer, more proportional voting system. If you sympathise with any party other than the big two; or if you want to support a party other than that holding your ‘safe’ seat, then your vote is wasted and you are not represented. You can find the petition here.

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